Page Two: SXSW 101

An index of commonly misplaced ire

Page Two
Yes, it is that time of year again! The South by Southwest dice have been thrown and are in the air; in just three weeks we'll begin to know how they are going to land this year. This week's column, in light of SXSW's new wristband-distribution policy, will once again offer the reasoning behind a lot of SXSW-related decisions. Obviously, being involved in the Chronicle and SXSW for more than two decades now, I'm not at all unused to negative reactions. Clearly, however, I'm still very much a novice when it comes to Web "discussions." Clearly, many of them are absolutely not about information but instead exist to spread vitriol. I say go for it, although how much fun can it be traveling in the wake of Limbaugh (sneer, insult, condescend, misinform, and then repeat)?

Still, too much of the regularly reiterated "common knowledge" about SXSW is wrong. This week's column is not expected or designed to change people's minds. It makes no sense to try pushing that stone up the hill again. For those interested, this one offers clarifications and corrections.

SXSW sells a limited number of wristbands to Austinites only at the lowest price that will be available. The exact number of wristbands that are finally sold is decided on the first day of the SXSW Music Festival and is based on the overall combined number of badges or wristbands already sold. In each of the last three years, we have significantly reduced the number of wristbands distributed so that the ones that are sold will still have value. There are no wristbands sold online or by phone to those living outside this area. SXSW had become increasingly elusive about the exact date when wristbands are to go on sale. This is in order to thwart scalpers and instead get them into the hands of as many Austin music fans as possible. This year's new wristband-distribution system for Austinites was specifically designed to address previous years' complaints – online, it allows everyone equal access, and the time window should remove any previous handicaps. Wristband prices are kept as low as possible. Online auction sites have wristbands offered for sale at prices ranging from $300 to $600 each. Clearly, SXSW could raise wristband prices significantly and still sell out. This year, instead, the regular $165 wristband price (discounted to $139 for the first 4,000 sold to Austinites) is below last year's highest price. (See p.5 for more wristband-distribution info.)

One thousand seven hundred fifty acts, including 500 international ones, will play at SXSW in 2008. They all come here because there is no other music event that offers the range of music-industry-related attendees. Significant numbers are involved in such areas as radio (including around 60 from the BBC), print media (not only does the international music press show up in force, but so do music writers from monthlies, weeklies, dailies, and fanzines), retailers, online enterprises, and independent and major record companies. Anyone who wishes to suggest that there is something wrong with SXSW's relationship with the bands should consider that in 2007, 8,000 acts applied, while this year that number rose to 10,500. The bands that get angry at SXSW are not the ones who get in but the ones who don't.

• The bands come to SXSW to play for the badge-holders. SXSW is well aware of how terrific Austin music audiences are; they add the magic, so an enormous amount of effort is put into trying to get the mix right: making sure that the badges get into venues to hear the music, so as not to shortchange the bands, while also planning to get as many wristband-wearing or single-ticket-purchasing Austinites in as well. If the audience was predominantly Austinite, it wouldn't work for the bands. If the audience was overwhelmingly or even entirely industry, it wouldn't work for the community or the vibe.

• The Loch Ness Monster myth of SXSW is that originally the event was specifically for unsigned bands. Everywhere it is mentioned that the event once showcased only unsigned acts. Which is interesting, except that it is not true. How can I be so sure? There was a long meeting in planning the first SXSW where it was clearly decided the SXSW Music Festival would always be about the quality of the music, not the affiliation of bands. If you look at the bands that played that first year, any number had been or were signed to indie or major labels. The event has grown significantly, so the number of unsigned acts showcased every year far exceeds the total number of acts (signed, unsigned, and meta-signed) that used to play.

Music writers are the most reliable source for this false assertion, usually chastising SXSW for having lost its way. Unfortunately, the very writers who most frequently and loudly repeat this incantation almost always don't deliver from their end, seeing and writing about far more of the breaking and biggest acts than the hundreds of unsigned ones. Two years back, a former Chronicle staffer who had become the music editor at another weekly began her SXSW column beating this old tired dog. Then she related how she couldn't get into one of the shows featuring major-name acts, bragging that instead she went to a bar with no music. What about all those unsigned acts? Unfortunately, this is the rule, not the exception. (This is also the case when it comes to Austin or Texas bands. SXSW's purpose was never to promote them exclusively, either.)

Next week, this column will briefly discuss one other historic situation crucial to SXSW's creation that is almost always neglected.  

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